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The junior senator from Washington has shown herself unafraid of making strange bedfellows over the last few months. She introduced a bill to cap carbon emissions with Susan Collins (R-Maine) and another to regulate banks with John McCain (R-Ariz.).
But now she's backing down from one of her more dramatic swings to the right. Last November, she sided with Senate Republicans on an amendment that would disallow civilian trials for terror suspects like alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is the primary backer of legislation to stop the trials because "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 9/11 conspirators should be tried by military commission -- not civilian court where they will be given the same legal rights as American citizens," he says.
Back then, most of the Democrats supported the Obama administration's decision to pull people out of the Gitmo human-rights quagmire and give them fair trials in courts of law here. But not Cantwell. She, along with three other Democrats and Joe Lieberman, voted with Graham. Cantwell issued no statement at the time to explain her vote.
Since November, public sentiment appears to be souring on the idea of giving suspected terrorists trials by jury. After the attack on a U.S.-bound plane on Christmas Day, arresting officers read would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights rather than subjecting him to a lengthy interrogation.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg switched from his initial support for the trials, saying that the expected security costs could hit $1 billion. And a recent poll found that 67 percent of Americans would rather see terrorists go before military tribunals.
With a stiffer no-rights-for-suspected-terrorists breeze at his back, today Graham is expected to reintroduce legislation to stop the Obama administration from spending $200 million on civilian trials. But while public sentiment may be increasingly on his side, Cantwell hasn't come out in support.
Spokesperson John Diamond says that Cantwell is aware of past successful terror prosecutions, something Robert Gibbs emphasized in defending the White House's position yesterday. Gibbs noted that both shoe-bomber Richard Reid and would-be-hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui were tried, convicted, and punished in American courts.
As to why Cantwell had supported the amendment in the first place, Diamond declined to clarify, saying the staff member who worked on the subject was out. But her biggest concern, he says, is having "a clear policy on how these detainees are treated."
Apparently, that clarity isn't going to come from her own record on this issue.
Diamond says that Cantwell hasn't made a final decision on Graham's legislation, which she hasn't seen. "She's not saying 'I regret my vote last year'," he says. "She does have concerns about the security of these trials."
Diamond adds that she voted against a previous attempt by James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to disallow any federal funding for holding or trying suspected terrorists of any kind in the United States.
And finally, Diamond says, Cantwell doesn't view her forays across the aisle as a bad thing. "I kind of thought that's what we're supposed to do up here," he says.